Read the dead uncharitably

I have mixed feelings about the so-called “principle of charity,” which Russell Blackford once stated as, “read others on the basis that they are probably saying something that’s not absurd.” On the one hand, people say absurd things often enough that this may not be such a great assumption when it comes to figuring out what’s actually be true, people’s feelings be damned. On the other hand:

  • Charity helps avoid flame wars
  • It’s good to be careful not to unjustifiably damage someone’s reputation
  • From a Machiavellian point of view, it’s nice to close off responses of the form, “what I meant was…”

I note is that none of these three reasons apply to dead people. I’m at no risk of getting into a flame war with Kant, Kant can’t care about his reputation, and when you criticize Kant there’s no risk that he’ll write any kind of rebuttal to you. (Question: can you think of any pragmatic reasons of the sort listed above that do apply to dead people?)

With famous dead people like Kant, a lot of people are going to say that the empirical arguments swing over to charity, since you don’t get to be a famous philosopher by saying absurd things. That seems to me empirically false, however.

  • Eric E

    What formulations of the principle of charity did you have in mind when you wrote this? The reason I ask is that you seem to think that the principle of charity is about other people’s feelings, but the main reason for the principle of charity is to make sure you fully understand the other position before you put it to critique and aren’t working with a straw man. Essentially, its a methodological principle that aims to prevent you from prematurely dismissing ideas. Avoiding flame wars and not hurting people’s reputations are nice side effects, I guess, but that isn’t really the goal of the methodological principle.

    If anything, the principle of charity is more important for dead people than living people because dead people aren’t around to help us understand their arguments. Living people can clarify things for us if we don’t quite get something right or haven’t formulated something the strongest way but that isn’t possible for dead people.

  • miller

    I can think of a couple reasons:
    1. We tend to be biased to think other people are wrong and have terrible reasons for their beliefs, whereas our own beliefs are better-founded. The principle of charity is a heuristic that compensates for this bias.
    2. Sometimes your goal is not to accurately describe a person’s position, but to persuade other people who hold similar positions. Some of those people may have better or worse reasons for their beliefs. To target the most people, you should criticize the better reasons, not the worse reasons.

  • Bronze Dog

    I’ll back up what Eric E said. Whenever I read about the principle of charity, the context is always about avoiding the straw man fallacy, since it can result from ambiguous statements. If there’s two interpretations of a position statement, assume the speaker meant the more rational/civilized/nuanced one and present corresponding arguments. If you pick the interpretation that favors an absurd position and argue against that, it can look like you intentionally and maliciously twisted his words into an absurd straw man if he did in fact mean the other.

    Example: Someone argues that vaccination will contribute to lowering the world population. Out of context, that could be interpreted in at least two ways: 1) Vaccines will raise survivability of children and reduce the need impoverished people feel for producing more children to get survivors, thus lowering the birth rate. 2) Vaccines are a genocidal Illuminati plot that will kill people so they can cut down the population to fit in their utopia.

    Unfortunately, these days we’ve got no shortage of nutbars who actually believe in absurd positions, so I favor calls for clarification over assuming the charitable argument in some cases.

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  • Justin Allen

    I can think of two primary reasons, off of the top of my head, to extend the principle of charity to the dead.

    One, that while becoming a famous philosopher doesn’t entail that you don’t commonly say absurd things, it does generally mean you’ve attracted some sort of following. Even wannabe’s like Ayn Rand (especially Ayn Rand, actually) have defenders who will jump on you for misrepresentations, real or perceived, so you can’t actually avoid a flame war.

    Second, and this ties into your Machiavellian thing, is that getting a rep as someone who misrepresents others isn’t good.

  • Christian H

    Could you offer a defense for reading uncharitably, in any situation? I cannot think of one. What work would reading uncharitably do? After a certain amount of effort I think it is fair to decide that an argument is ill-founded, and I’ve had my share of arguments with people who are clearly not thinking their ideas through, but I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t at least put some initial effort to figure out if the person, dead or alive, is saying something intelligent that you can’t understand or they can’t articulate. I’m asking this honestly, though; I presume you have a reason for not reading charitably (even if it is outweighed by reasons to read charitably)?

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